The United States and Poland have begun war games as Washington last night made a gesture of support for its Nato allies in the Baltic states and Eastern Europe after Russia’s intervention in Ukraine.
Polish president Bronislaw Komorowski called on his country’s political parties to safeguard defence spending at a time of budget constraints due to the “events to the east”, without specifically naming Ukraine.
The US claimed that both the air drills in Poland and its joint naval exercises in the Black Sea were planned before the crisis in Ukraine.
But they are being seen as a message of resolve to Nato members nervous about Russia’s intentions in its former Cold War backyard, along with separate reconnaissance flights over Poland and Romania near the Ukrainian border.
Poland is traditionally seen as Nato’s border in the East, with the former communist state a staunch ally of the US.
The defence ministry in Bucharest said a Nato E-3A Awacs plane would fly through Romanian airspace. The aircraft fly out of Germany and Britain.
At the Lask base in central Poland, Mr Komorowski watched as four Polish F-16s took to the air. An American Hercules transport plane landed with support staff and at least 12 US F-16 fighter jets, and 300 personnel are due to arrive for the exercises – beefed up at Warsaw’s request after Russian forces seized control in Crimea.
Flanked by a handful of American soldiers, Mr Komorowski stressed the need to maintain defence spending in Poland.
“I hope events to the east of the Polish border, which is also Nato’s border, will encourage tough decisions regarding Polish security,” he said.
Mr Komorowski urged all parties to safeguard annual defence spending.
The exercises underline Washington’s lead role in the response to Russia’s actions in Ukraine, where political forces determined to take Kiev westwards to Europe have taken power after the overthrow of president Viktor Yanukovich.
The European Union, hampered by the need for consensus among its 28 members and their economic interdependence with Russia, has been less bold, though members such as Britain have threatened sanctions.
In a separate deployment since the Ukraine crisis began, extra US military aircraft have arrived in Lithuania to take part in regular Nato air patrols over the Baltic states.
In other developments yesterday, the Swiss head of Europe’s security and democracy watchdog said that Crimea’s referendum on joining Russia this weekend is illegal in its current form and independent observers will not be sent.
The region had invited the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to send a mission to observe Sunday’s poll.
But the organisation last night stated that attempts to break away in their current form would go against the Ukrainian constitution.
Swiss foreign minister Didier Burkhalter, whose country is the current chair of the Vienna-based OSCE, said: “In its current form the referendum… is in contradiction with the Ukrainian constitution and must be considered illegal.”
In further developments yesterday, the European Commission agreed to give nearly €500 million worth of trade benefits to Ukraine, which had been teetering towards default even before the unrest in Kiev.